How to use food correctly when training your dog.


Food works very well as a primary reinforcer for training dogs.  Wolves, the ancient ancestors of domestic dogs, were predators and hunting, foraging and acquiring food is very important to the canine species.

But how we use food in training is very important and I take a lot of care to teach my clients how to use food correctly.

Keep in mind the difference between a REWARD and BRIBE.  A reward is a consequence to a behavior.  The reward appears after the correct behavior occurs.  A bribe is an antecedent to the behavior, it appears before the behavior occurs and is the stimulus for the learner to do the behavior.

Example of a BRIBE:  I hold food in my hand and cue the dog to “ROLLOVER”.  The dog sees the food and does the behavior.  He rolls over.  I give him the food.  What is the problem?  The problem is that the food is the stimulus to “roll over”.  If we trained that way and then one day asked the dog to “roll over” with no food present, the stimulus would be absent and the dog would not respond.

Example of a REWARD:  I have no food present, I cue the dog to “ROLLOVER” and the dog rolls over.  He is then rewarded with food after the behavior is completed.  The food is a “consequence” to rolling over.  The cue “Roll over” is the stimulus, not food.  Reward must be contingent upon a correct response from the dog.

Once we start training dogs with food, dogs learn very quickly that even a hand moving toward the source of food (like a treat bag or pocket) is a predictor of food.  This is actually a bribe and a huge distractor to learning.  It becomes very important not to move the food hand toward the source of the food until the correct behavior is completed.

Training dogs is a skill.  Like all new skills, you get better at it with practice.  Be patient with yourself and your dog and soon you be clicking and treating with confidence.